Top-ranking Vatican cardinal charged with sex offenses in Australia

By Julie Zauzmer
Cardinal George Pell: ‘I’m innocent of these charges’
During a news conference on June 29 Cardinal George Pell said he was innocent of sex abuse charges and said he was a victim of “relentless character assassination.” Pell said he would take leave from his position as the Vatican’s finance chief to return to Australia to fight the charges. (Reuters)

A cardinal in charge of the Vatican’s finances has been charged with multiple sexual offenses by Australian police, in one of the most significant indictments against a top-ranking leader of the Catholic Church.

Cardinal George Pell faces multiple charges of “historical sexual assault offenses,” the Australian criminal justice system’s term for offenses committed in the past, Victoria Police Deputy Commissioner Shane Patton announced at a news conference on Thursday morning in Australia.

That morning, Victoria police notified Pell’s legal representative that he has been charged and must appear in court on July 18, Patton said.

Patton said that Pell was treated no differently than any other defendant because of his high rank in the Vatican — notifying a legal representative and summoning the defendant to court at a later date is the recommendation of Australian prosecutors in a case like his.

Patton did not discuss the details of the case, so it was not clear whether Pell was charged with participating in abuse or covering it up.

In the Vatican, Pell’s job as secretariat of the economy is so crucial that it has been described as the second-most-powerful role in Rome, after only the pope. But for years, he has faced accusations of improper behavior connected with clergy sexual abuse in Australia.

In Ballarat, Pell’s hometown, dozens of children were abused by priests. After the abuse came to light, priests testified under oath that Pell knew about the abuse while it was occurring.

The scale of the abuse in Ballarat was staggering: In one fourth-grade class of 33 boys, 12 committed suicide, the Post reported in 2015. Five priests who worked in the parish were convicted of crimes, including one who was found guilty of abusing more than 50 children.

Two years ago, Peter Saunders, a survivor of sexual abuse on the Vatican’s Commission for the Protection of Minors, spoke out against Pell, calling him “almost sociopathic” in his lack of concern for the victims of abuse in an interview with Australia’s television program “60 Minutes.”

Saunders asked Pope Francis at the time to remove Pell from his position and take “the strongest action against him.” But Pell publicly refuted Saunders’s allegations, and a Vatican spokesman stood with Pell, saying the cardinal “must be considered reliable.”

[From 2015: Top Vatican cardinal trailed by old child abuse scandal from Australia]

Pell has served as a priest since 1966.

Play Video 1:27
Cardinal Pell testifies about Church’s ‘enormous mistakes’
Australian Cardinal George Pell spoke to a commission investigating the Catholic church’s sexual abuse cases in Australia on Feb. 29. The Vatican’s finance minister admitted that the Church “has mucked things up, has let people down.” (Reuters)
In response to an Australian inquiry into clergy sexual abuse last year, he testified in court that he had heard about “misbehavior” by two priests — including priests kissing children and swimming naked with them — but had not reported it. He had heard only fleeting references to the priests’ actions, he said, and knew little about the incidents.

He said he doesn’t remember a child ever reporting abuse to him, though he added, “My memory is sometimes fallible,” according to the Australian Broadcasting Corporation. When children did report abuse in earlier decades, he said, they weren’t likely to be believed.

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“In those days, if a priest denied such activity, I was very strongly inclined to accept the denial,” he said. “At that stage, the instinct was more to protect the institution, the community of the church, from shame.”

In his testimony, he said, “The church has made enormous mistakes and is working to remedy those.”

[From 2016: Pell testifies about handling of sexual abuse that rocked Australia]

On Thursday morning, Patton did not offer any details about the charges against Pell, other than to say that the cardinal faces “multiple charges in respect to historical offenses.”

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